The digital divide is most commonly defined as the gap between those individuals and communities that have, and do not have, access to the information technologies that are transforming our lives.
In February 2002, the U.S. Department of Commerce released “A Nation Online: How Americans Are Expanding Their Use of the Internet,” the latest study on computer and Internet use in America. Formerly a national benchmark for measuring disparities in access, the implied message of this latest release is that the digital divide is no longer a major concern. Many organizations feel differently, and as the debate intensifies, we are asking after ten years of national leadership to address the issue, “Where are we?”
“A Nation Online” pointed to U.S. Census data showing that 143 million Americans, or about 54 percent of the population, are using the Internet. It also reported that the rate of growth of Internet use in the United States is currently 2 million new Internet users per month, with Internet use continuing to increase across income, education, age, race, ethnicity, and gender lines.
This is all good news, and a testament, in part, to the effectiveness of several federally funded programs such as the E-Rate, or telecommunications discounts to schools and libraries, the Technology Opportunities Program (TOP) and the Community Technology Centers Program (CTC). The CTC program provides matching grants that leverage state, local, and other resources to create and improve technology access and training facilities. The TOP program provides matching grants for projects that use technology in innovative ways to solve social problems and improve community access to modern telecommunications.
Progress has been made, but a deeper look at the numbers in “A Nation Online” reveals that considerable work remains to bridge the digital divide. With 54 percent of Americans online, the current Administration sees “A Nation Online” as proof that a targeted national commitment to bridging the divide is no longer necessary. Along with a 17 percent decrease in educational technology funding from FY 2001, the TOP and CTC programs have been slated for termination in 2003. The rationale is that Americans are gaining access to computers at an acceptable pace and as a result the role of government can be curtailed.
Sonia Arrison, director of the Center for Technology Studies at the Pacific-Research Institute, is one of several conservative commentators who has argued recently that “the digital divide is not a crisis that places citizens in urgent need of more government help.” Echoing past comments of Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell that what we have is a “Mercedes divide,” Arrison also argues “many of the Internet’s so called ‘have-nots’ are really ‘want-nots.’”
On the opposite end of the debate, numerous organizations have rallied in support of continued federal funding for the CTC and TOP programs by launching the Digital Empowerment advocacy campaign. They note that almost half of Americans do not have Internet access at home and only 25 percent of America’s poorest households are online compared with approximately 80 percent of homes earning over $75,000. Only around 30 percent of youth in the lowest household income category use computers at home compared to over 90 percent of youth in the highest income category.
Even more striking is the fact that this gap has expanded in recent years. Similar disparities can be found among populations with limited formal education. Hispanics (31.8 percent) and African Americans (39.8 percent) lag behind whites (59.9 percent) in Internet access at home, suggesting serious ethnic and racial divides.
The Civil Rights Forum, Consumers Union, and the Consumer Federation of America released a report in May 2002 called “Does the Digital Divide Still Exist? Bush Administration Shrugs, But Evidence Says ‘Yes.’” (PDF) The report concludes that the true measure of the digital divide is in assessing home Internet access. It also states that an inability to access the enhanced content available via broadband is creating a second-generation divide.
In response to arguments that the Internet is unnecessary or something of a luxury, Mark Lloyd, Executive Director of the Civil Rights Forum on Communications Policy, said, “Being disconnected in the Information Age is not like being deprived of a Mercedes or some other luxury. Being disconnected means being disconnected from the economy and democratic debate.”
Reaping the Rewards of National Investment
A new policy brief from the Benton Foundation, publisher of the Digital Divide Network, explores the likely impact of the federal budget cuts and how ending targeted efforts to bring technology to underserved communities could dampen economic and community development.
The brief focuses on how national programs such as the CTC and TOP have helped to wire schools and libraries and bring technology training into underserved communities. Objective research on the CTC program from SRI International, one of the nation’s premier education technology research groups, shows technology being used in disadvantaged communities is improving pre-school, after-school, and adult learning. A recent report on telecommunications access in rural America shows that TOP has been instrumental in enabling rural communities to enhance local economies, better manage natural resources, and improve access to education and health services. Like the CTC program, its funding peaked in 2001 and elimination is in the works for 2003.
Continuing to Overcome the Digital Divide
Nobody believes that technology will be a quick-fix solution to poverty, but ensuring that underserved individuals and communities can access education and tools to improve the quality of their lives certainly appears to be a critical piece of the answer. The appropriations process will go on until September, when the 2003 budget will be finalized. Until that time, the debate will continue with one side saying “the invisible hand” of the free market is taking care of the problem and another pressing to save federal investments they feel are critical to connecting all Americans.